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Inability to collect signatures online hampers county, local candidates

A confluence of circumstances is making it extremely difficult for many candidates to collect the signatures they need in order to get their names on the ballot amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and those running for county, municipal and other local offices, there's an additional obstacle in the way – the inability to collect signatures online.

Candidates for the legislature, statewide and federal offices can collect signatures online through a system called E-Qual, which the secretary of state's office oversees. E-Qual went online for the 2012 election cycle, originally including only legislative and statewide candidates.

In 2016, lawmakers voted to expand the system to federal, county and municipal candidates, as well as those running for precinct committeeman positions, which are the voting members of district-level political party organizations. Although that law has been on the books for four years, county and local candidates still don't have access to E-Qual, even though it's been expanded to include federal offices.

Now, more than ever, E-Qual could be a political lifesaver for many local candidates who are struggling to collect their signatures.

Many Arizonans have been following federal and state guidelines urging them to practice social distancing in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. In general, people are supposed to stay at least six feet apart and avoid gatherings of more than ten people.

And Gov. Doug Ducey on March 30 issued a "stay-at-home" order that requires many businesses to close their doors and mandates that people leave their homes only for limited reasons.

On top of all that, the deadline for candidates to submit their nominating petitions is earlier than it's ever been in Arizona. Lawmakers last year moved up the date of the primary election from the last Tuesday in August to the first Tuesday of the month, which falls on Aug. 4 this year. That necessitated an earlier deadline for nominating petitions. Instead of late May, candidates must now submit their signatures by Monday, April 6. Candidates who started running for office late in the election cycle are at a particular disadvantage.

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, blasted the secretary of state's office in a recent press release, questioning why E-Qual hasn't yet been expanded to include county and local candidates.

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"With the April 6 filing deadline fast approaching, time is running out for many of these candidates who are struggling to collect enough signatures – a great many of whom should, under law, be allowed to collect signatures online, but cannot because the Secretary of State's failure to make the E-Qual portal accessible to them," Finchem said in the press statement.

Finchem emphasized that he's not blaming Katie Hobbs alone. Hobbs took office in January 2019. Her predecessor, Michele Reagan, did not even begin work on E-Qual expansion, though she had nearly three years to do so.

"At the end of the day, the real issue is the state statute exists. It has existed for at least one other election cycle. And that office still has not complied with state statute," Finchem told Arizona Mirror.

Sophia Solis, a spokeswoman for Hobbs, said the office is planning to have the new system online in 2021. But factors beyond the administration's control kept it from expanding it for the current election cycle, she said.

Delays under Reagan stalled expansion

Solis said Hobbs couldn't expand E-Qual until the office's new voter registration system was completed. That project had been delayed by Reagan, leaving it for Hobbs to finish. By the time Hobbs's team finished it, it was too late to expand E-Qual in time for 2020 candidates.

Ken Bennett, who was secretary of state when E-Qual first went online for the 2012 election, said there's no reason why Reagan and Hobbs couldn't expand the system to include other jurisdictions. He noted that he established the original system for statewide and legislative candidates without additional funding from the legislature, using the office's preexisting IT staff.

Bennett acknowledged that the expansion will be a substantial task. There are 15 counties and 91 cities, and within those groups are hundreds of city council and county board of supervisor seats, justice of the peace positions, constables and others, along with thousands of precinct committeemen. He suggested starting with one type of jurisdiction – perhaps counties – then expanding to include municipalities and precinct committeemen once that initial phase is completed.

"Building a new system should've been more difficult without additional funding than them being able to take that existing system and expand it to a different group of officeholders," Bennett said.

Lee Miller, who served as Reagan's assistant secretary of state, said the Reagan administration was aware of the requirement and it was on their to-do list. But the office's IT staff can only handle so many projects at once. Reagan, he said, prioritized an overhaul of the secretary of state's online campaign finance system, as well as cybersecurity issues in the election years she oversaw. She was able to expand the system to include federal candidates, as mandated by a separate bill that lawmakers passed in 2016, but ran out of time to include local offices when she lost her re-election bid in 2018, Miller said.

The biggest difficulty with expanding E-Qual is developing an interface that will work for local jurisdictions that will feed them information in the ways they want to receive it, Miller said. On top of that, he noted that Maricopa and Pima counties have historically preferred to rely on their own IT systems rather than join statewide systems established by the secretary of state.

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"It's not a giant technological challenge. It's just a time-consuming challenge to engage with all these individual jurisdictions," Miller said.

Hobbs requested new funding for IT staff for the fiscal year that begins in July, though that request, like many others, fell by the wayside when the legislature rushed to pass a "skinny budget" so they could go on hiatus for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak.

Nonetheless, Solis said E-Qual will be open to local candidates by June 2021. But that will be too late for some candidates who are at risk of falling short on Monday, when petitions are due.

Some candidates unable to get on the ballot

Tony Bouie, a former Republican legislator who started running for a justice of the peace position in February, said he doubts he'll be able to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. But if he could collect online, "It would be significantly less difficult. Significantly."

In February, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors appointed Eddie Cook to be the new county assessor after his predecessor Paul Petersen, who faces dozens of state and federal charges related to an alleged illegal adoption scheme involving women from the Marshall Islands, resigned.

With just a few days to go before the deadline hits, Cook is still collecting signatures, which is difficult amid the COVID crisis, "especially if you have to do it the old fashioned way with pen to paper and not having access to some form of electronic signatures..

He struck a hopeful tone, but wouldn't say if he believes he'll have enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

"We have until Monday to figure this out, so we're working to figure out how to do this," Cook said.

In Scottsdale, political operatives say one mayoral candidate may not get enough signatures to get on the ballot. Cochise County Recorder David Stevens, a former lawmaker who sponsored the bill that expanded E-Qual in 2016, said several candidates for office in Bisbee are also in trouble, and that at least one office may not have any candidates qualify for the ballot.

"It's the secretary's responsibility to fulfill that statute, and they have not. And it's two in a row," Stevens said.

Brian Murray, a Republican campaign consultant, said he's seen petitioners charging candidates as much as $42 per signature in recent weeks. In most years, he said the maximum rate the week before the deadline would be about $5. Andrew Chavez, owner of the signature-gathering company Petition Partners, said he's seen signatures going for even higher, between $50 and $65, even in some races where candidates can collect signatures online.

The fact that so many businesses and other establishments are closed, and people are wary to let anyone get close to them in public, has made things far more difficult than usual, Murray said. Many petitioners are focusing their efforts on grocery stores and giant retailers like Wal-Mart. To ease people's concerns, Murray said many are giving each petition signer an unused pen and letting them keep it, rather than ask people to use pens that others have already touched.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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